The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism

I spotted this over at WorldChanging a couple days ago – an interesting article by Ethan Zuckerman, based on a presentation he recently gave at ETech. It's long, but this first part summed up the phenomenon of user-generated content, and why it matters, nicely. This is an evo/revolution of the web that no one is denying anymore.

Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.

Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.

I had a front-row seat for this transition, working with Tripod. We sincerely believed that the purpose of the web was to give college graduates helpful information about renting apartments, applying for jobs and investing their money. Our users rapidly told us that what the web was really about was publishing their own information… which left us with the difficult challenge of figuring out how to make money off of people’s collections of cat pictures.

User-generated content, on average, is a lot less interesting than professional content. But there are a lot more people creating their own content for fun than those doing so for a living, and in aggregate, that content is at least as interesting.

Based on my Tripod experience, I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media - it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test - if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

It's also a good summation of one of the major themes at our upcoming Social Tech Training. How do we harness this movement in service of social change? What are the opportunities to engage our constituents in new ways?